The Entergy Nuclear company of Jackson, Missippippi, with the blessing of the Bush Administration, is seeking preliminary approval to add one or two new nuclear reactors to its existing reactor at Grand Gulf. If the move is approved, the company, a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, will become the first US utility to order a nuclear reactor since 1978. This expansion, viewed by critics as a form of environmental racism, would worsen already significant health hazards to the area’s poor, mostly black population.
Since African slaves began arriving two centuries ago, the Grand Gulf region of woods, soybean farms, and cotton farms has been plagued by the grinding poverty characteristic of the Deep South. In the five counties within 30 miles of the site, which are home to 92,000 people, poverty and unemployment levels are double the national levels. Poverty means undernourishment, inadequate housing, lack of access to medical care–and ultimately more deaths. Placing a buffet of radioactive chemicals in the midst of vulnerable people is like holding a lighted match over kerosene. In the two years after Grand Gulf first started emitting airborne radioactivity in 1982, local infant deaths jumped by 35 percent and miscarriages by 58 percent. Adult death rates soared past the state and nation beginning in the early 1990s.
The nuclear experiment in Mississippi also exemplifies economic injustice. Large construction cost overruns in the building of the first plant were conveniently tucked into the electric bills of consumers who could ill afford them. Grand Gulf promised local jobs, but just 125 plant workers, or 18 percent of the total, live in Claiborne County, where the plant is located. The plant also promised tax dollars, but soon after Grand Gulf opened a new state law reduced Claiborne County’s share of the utility’s state taxes from 100 percent to 30 percent–the rest going to the 44 counties that use the greatest share of Grand Gulf electricity.
The Claiborne County NAACP, the Mississippi Sierra Club, the Nuclear Information Resource Service, and Public Citizen have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to halt the proposal to expand the plant, basing their opposition in part on the lack of attention paid to the special needs of local residents. But Bush’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected the claim in January. According to the government’s 719-page environmental assessment, the new reactors would cause a microscopic .0004 additional cancers and birth defects each year within 50 miles. In addition to failing to assess how vulnerable the local population may be to radiation exposure, the report also ignores the threat of a terrorist attack and doesn’t discuss how to dispose of the staggering amounts of dangerous nuclear waste.
Numerous local residents showed up at several public meetings, including one on June 28 in Port Gibson, to decry the expansion. But Entergy, playing its cards shrewdly, has successfully gained the backing of some key local players, including the mayor of Port Gibson and the Claiborne County supervisor, both blacks. Meanwhile, Entergy Nuclear president Gary Taylor has called for federal loan guarantees for constructing new nukes–a curious cry for taxpayer help from a $10 billion company whose stock price has more than tripled in the past six years.
Whether or not the push to revive nuclear power succeeds, one thing is clear: The government-industry partnership will do whatever it can to bring new nukes to America, even if it means jump-starting the process by employing white-collar racism that targets society’s most vulnerable members.